Fantasy baseball draft season is in full swing, which means it is time for experienced veterans and novice newcomers to brush up on the draft-day basics. Here are the top tips for laying the foundation for a championship squad.
- Use updated projections
Experienced owners may wish to build their own projections, but most owners will save time by finding a set online. Before choosing a source, ensure that the projections are sensible and recently updated. If Kris Medlen is projected for 200 innings or Ervin Santana is listed as a free agent, move on to another source. The MLB.com Player Preview will be updated daily until the Dodgers and D-backs kick off the 2014 season in Australia on March 22.
- Know your league format and rules
Before heading into the draft room, be sure to know the details involving league size, scoring system, starting roster requirements, bench size, waiver-wire rules and trading rules. The value of certain players will vary widely depending on the format of individual leagues.
- Draft players you believe in
It is fine to base most picks around mathematical player projections, but there is also an art to fantasy baseball. It is your team and your team alone. When your number is called, pick a player that you believe in, because you have to live with that decision all season.
- Draft an ace, preferably two
There are many useful arms around the Majors, but only a few true studs who can be counted on for roughly 200 strikeouts, an ERA around 3.00 and a WHIP in the 1.10 range. Do not be afraid to spend an early-round pick on one of these aces, and it is not a bad idea to come out of the first six or seven rounds with two terrific hurlers. Although hitters get most of the early-round attention, elite starters are just as important in the pursuit of a title.
- Do not get cute with closers
Some owners try to outsmart the competition and find closers throughout the season on the waiver wire. But more often than not, this strategy leads to disaster. A fantasy owner can deplete in-season resources by trying to chase saves on waivers or in trades. It is best to come out of a draft with at least two secure closers, and drafting three can even be a good idea. Top stoppers such as Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland are much more likely to keep their jobs all season than late-round relievers. Additionally, these late-inning dominators will help your team's rate stats.
Top ninth-inning men will also help in the whiffs department. For example, five closers finished 2013 with at least 98 K's: Aroldis Chapman (112), Kenley Jansen (111), Holland (103), Ernesto Frieri (98) and Kimbrel (98). By comparison, 29 hurlers finished 2013 with at least 100 innings pitched and fewer whiffs than the aforementioned firemen.
- Target players in their prime
Many Major Leaguers follow the pattern of improving during their early 20s, reaching peak production for a few years in between ages 26-32, and then declining during the remainder of their career. A fantasy roster replete with players in their prime years will give an owner a great chance to receive plentiful production without the worry of having players who are too young for Major League success or are in jeopardy of an age-related decline.
- Limit risky selections, especially in early rounds
Early-round picks need to form the statistical base for a roster, so it is important to avoid players with long injury histories or players who are unproven. A strategic middle- or late-round pick on a youngster such as Tony Cingrani or Yordano Ventura can be part of terrific draft plan, but those types of acquisitions should be limited to two or three picks. For every sleeper who breaks through, many fail to deliver on their promise.
- Stay current on the status of injured players and position battles
During the month of March, it is important to spend a few minutes each day reviewing player notes. Knowing the status of injured players or those locked in a position battle can be a big benefit when making key draft-day decisions.
- Limit in-draft clutter
Many fantasy drafters have suffered from paralysis-by-analysis. In most leagues, each owner has somewhere between 60-90 seconds to make each pick. That time frame doesn't leave room to flip through magazines, check websites and take a detailed look at projections. Wise owners should start the draft with a blank roster sheet, a rankings list and possibly a set of projections. All other information will only serve to clutter the mind, when it should be focused on in-draft strategies and adjustments.
- Draft one player with multiposition eligibility
Even the best-laid plans can fall apart during the season. To have a versatile roster, it is a great idea to draft at least one player who is eligible at two or three positions. The added eligibility will allow fantasy owners to search for the best available replacement on waivers or on the bench rather than being forced to scramble for a specific position in the event a need arises due to injury or ineffectiveness from a player in the starting lineup.
Tips for shallow leagues (usually 10 or 12 teams)
- Wait on a catcher
In shallow leagues, just 10-12 catchers are necessary to fill all the active roster spots. The difference between top catchers such as Buster Posey and a lower-ranked backstop such as Wilson Ramos is not large enough to warrant using an early-round pick on a catcher. Wait until round 20, pick the best catcher available, and enjoy the added talent at other positions.
- Stash upside on the bench
In shallow leagues, the waiver wire will be full of productive options throughout the season. For that reason, it is wise to hold some high-upside players on the bench. Closers-in-waiting or top prospects can pay big dividends in the second half.
- Wait longer on closers
Although closers are still valuable in shallow leagues, their greatest value is in deep formats. Since most of the 30 Major League teams have a single closer, shallow-league owners can still find plenty of stoppers in the second half of fantasy drafts.
Tips for deep leagues (more than 12 teams in mixed formats, or American League/National League only)
- Avoid rookies
Owners in deep leagues cannot afford to get cute. Because the waiver wire is usually barren in these formats, it is necessary to have reliable, productive players on the active roster and bench. Rookies are exciting, but a month-long slump can sometimes push them back to the Minors and leave deep-league owners with a huge hole in the lineup.
- Draft catchers early
In two-catcher leagues, backstops have plenty of value. Because of the defensive priority associated with the position, it is hard for deep-league owners to find 24 or 30 catchers with useful offensive numbers. Waiting until the late rounds to nab a receiver in two-catcher leagues could leave a fantasy owner with a large hole in the lineup.
- Get reliable veterans on the bench
Because of the dearth of talent on the waiver wire in deep leagues, it is foolish to depend on that source of roster replenishment. Keeping a couple useful veterans such as Omar Infante or Gerardo Parra on the bench is not an exciting strategy, but those players will provide useful statistics when called upon.
Tips for rotisserie leagues
- Value speed
Stolen bases are one-fifth of the points in a typical roto league, but only a select group of players records a high number of steals. For this reason, it is important to secure the services of at least a couple fleet-footed basestealers.
- Draft high-strikeout hurlers
Projecting pitcher wins is quite difficult, and a hurler's overall ERA and WHIP can be greatly affected by a few poor performances. High-strikeout pitchers are usually consistent within that category, which ensures that they will return some value no matter how they fare in the other areas.
- Look for five-category hitters
Hitters who are productive in just two or three categories can leave owners in trouble if one skill deserts them for part of the season. But hitters who can help across the board are often able to continue contributing even if part of their game falls off due to an injury or a slump.
Tips for points leagues
- Be wary of streaky hitters
Most points leagues use weekly head-to-head matchups rather than the season-long systems that are utilized in roto leagues. Streaky hitters are not a problem in roto leagues -- as long as the production is there by season's end. But in head-to-head leagues, streaky hitters can cause fantasy owners to lose some weekly matches. Players who have a high level of week-to-week consistency are generally preferred in these formats.
- Consider walk rates
Almost all roto leagues use batting average instead of on-base percentage, which means that walk rates rarely affect player value in those formats. In points leagues, players usually get points for drawing walks. Most online rankings are geared towards roto leagues, so points-league owners should bump up the players who frequently draw free passes.
- Look for players who hit doubles
Players who rip many doubles may score more runs, but in general, roto owners only care whether the hit made it over the outfield wall. The majority of points leagues count doubles as more valuable than singles, so owners who have extra-base power are worth more in this format.* * * * *
The draft is only the beginning of a winning season, but it is definitely the most important day on the fantasy calendar. A productive, balanced Opening Day roster is key to being able to make smart roster moves the rest of the way. Although there are many other tricks to the fantasy trade, following the above tips should set a fantasy owner up for a great chance to come away with a league championship.
Fred Zinkie is a fantasy baseball writer for MLB.com.